In addition to making community college free, Tennessee has taken steps to make it easier for students to succeed once they get there.
It took more than free tuition to make Tennessee’s free community-college program a success.
Tennessee has also done a complete overhaul of its community colleges — pedestrian-sounding changes that include defining pathways that lead to degrees or careers, bumping up advising, allowing students to take both remedial and college-level courses at the same time, doing away with algebra as a requirement for nontechnical tracks and making it easy for students to schedule classes in blocks of time.
Those changes have captured less attention than the college-is-free message, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. But they are at the core of the program’s success, he said.
Some of those elements are also part of Seattle’s 13th Year Promise Scholarship program, which gives students at six Seattle high schools a free first year of community college. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who wants to make community college free for every Seattle public-school student, says wraparound services, counseling and other supports would be extended to make the program work. Voters will decide on the measure this November.
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Before it was a statewide program funded by public dollars, Tennessee Promise was a privately funded, countywide program in eastern Tennessee’s Knox County. To make it a success statewide, educators needed to think through all the places where a student could drop out, and then plan for ways to keep that from happening, said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Some of those supports take place in high school, where schools are working closely with colleges to make sure students are ready for college-level courses, making it less likely they’ll have to sign up for remedial classes.
For those students who do need remediation, the nonprofit Tennessee Achieves provides free, three-week summer “boot camps.” (Seattle’s 13th Year Promise Scholarship offers a similar program.)
During boot camp, students take the placement test for math, reading and writing at the start and end of the program. Nearly half of all students who attend the boot camps test out of remediation, meaning they can start college-level courses in the fall.
Students who still need remediation when they enter college go through “corequisite remediation,” taking both a remedial course and a college-level course at the same time. The success of that program has been “remarkable,” said Anthony Wise, president of Pellissippi State Community College.
At Nashville State and many other colleges, all students must take a semesterlong course that, in effect, teaches them how to be college students. Among other topics, it introduces them to the availability of tutoring and gets them to plan their careers.
And requiring students to go to college full time was also a deliberate choice, based on years of research showing full-time students are much more likely to graduate.
Jenkins says Tennessee’s changes have caused “dramatic improvements in early momentum,” including the number of students taking and passing college-level math and English.
Many students arrive at college thinking it’s an extension of high school, with a passing grade all but guaranteed. Marla Perry, an associate professor of sociology at Nashville State, sets them straight. “You can fail yourself,” she tells them.
“We don’t want them here very long,” said Jessica Rabb, a biology professor who also teaches the first-year course at Nashville State. “It’s not a four-year school.”